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Unintended consequences and the amazing world of sheep

Neil Kay, Professorial Fellow

Faculty Blog

We love sheep in Scotland. We already have more sheep than people as evidenced by the excellent publication "Sheep Facts: Find out more about the amazing world of sheep". However, not satisfied with that, we were the first in the world to clone one and give her a pet name (Dolly).

So it was not surprising when a ferry company encouraged sheep farming a few years ago by giving farmers large discounts if they were transporting livestock to the mainland.

But imagine their surprise when they discovered enterprising farmers trundling onto the ferry for their holidays were not just packing suntan oil and sunglasses into their Volvo Estates but also finding hoofroom for one of their favourite woolly ruminants.

Meanwhile, down under, an even more sheep-obsessed country had been grappling with the problems of slumping export demand. The government did what seemed the sensible thing to do and subsidised famers for every head of sheep they produced.

So New Zealand got more sheep... Lots of sheep... Lots of very skinny sheep.

In fact, the policy became known as "the skinny sheep scheme". There was gross overproduction of poor-quality mutton and the environment suffered.

The link between these two stories is not just sheep but (the law of) unintended consequences. And the thing about unintended consequences is that they seem so obvious - at least after the event. But do strategists and policy makers worry about them?

You bet they do. Here are just some stories from the business media only this last month:

But not all unintended consequences are malign. Here are a couple looking at some benign unintended consequences:

So is this an excuse for doing nothing? Surely these unintended events, good and bad, will come to pass and there is nothing we can do about them? Not really. Just because consequences are unintended does not mean everything can just be left to fate. Small scale trials may be possible as testers in some case (though obviously not Brexit), scenario planning can help and role playing may illuminate soft areas.

Military strategists also plan for an exit strategy from campaigns – just in case of unanticipated consequences. It is worth exploring whether there is flexibility and reversibility if buyer's remorse begins to set in (a question a lot of people have been asking about Brexit).

But what happened to New Zealand sheep farming? They abandoned subsidies, sheep got plumper, farming more productive and famers diversified - although there were really hard and painful times before they got there (see here).

And Dolly? She ended her days as a Wikipedia entry and as a prize exhibit in our National Museum after having spawned four identical clones of her own: Daisy, Debbie, Dianna and Denise.

So if you’ve been to Scotland and thought all our sheep looked the same – well, you didn’t know the half of it...